We welcome this guest post from Associate Professor Ruth Gregory on women’s reproductive rights and athletics. The first picture below is a picture of Ruth with competitive downhill skiiers who have been denied entrance into the Olympics!
With the Winter Olympics right around the corner, there is excitement in the air in the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver and Whistler, Canada, the sites of the 2010 Winter Olympics, are just a short drive away. However, the one sport that I hoped to watch at this year’s games is also the one sport that you won’t see women competing in – ski jumping. Ski jumping and its sister sport Nordic Combined (a combination of ski jumping and cross country skiing) are currently the only sports in the Winter or Summer games that do not have a division for female competitors.

In 2002 I met American ski jumpers Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome.  At the time they were goofy teenagers with an intense desire to jump off of the sides of mountains at upwards of 60 miles per hour. A couple of months prior to our introduction Van and Jerome had warmed up the ski jumps for the men at the 2002 Olympic Games in their hometown of Park City, Utah. Van had been jumping since she was a child and knew the games were coming to Salt Lake City for several years prior.  She was interviewed by several media outlets and even featured in a Warren Miller film (Freeriders) and every time she said the same thing, “I want to compete in the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.” However, her dream of jumping in Jump Like a Girlthe Olympics in her hometown never came to pass.

My filmmaker partner and I made a documentary film about Van and Jerome from 2002 to 2005. At the time they were hoping to be included into the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. However, the International Ski Federation denied them the opportunity to compete in a World Cup, a requisite precursor to the Olympics, and the women were barred from the games again.

Our subsequent documentary, Jump like a Girl, was screened around the globe and represented the first of several documentaries that have been made about the struggles of female ski jumpers. Recently, the news broke that although women had finally competed at the World Cup level (Lindsey Van was the first women’s world champion in 2009) they were still being denied entrance into the 2010 Winter Olympics by the International Olympic Committee. An article from OntheSnow.com highlighted the women’s journey and their continued frustration:

“It’s absolutely absurd, absolutely ridiculous,” top American jumper Lindsey Van said last season. “It’s 2009 and this is almost like a joke. I don’t have words for it anymore, it’s so beyond maddening.”

Lindsey Van answers questions for the press after a recent Canada court ruling regarding the fate of female ski jumpers in the Olympics.  Photo: The Canadian Associated Press.
Lindsey Van answers questions for the press after a recent Canada court ruling regarding the fate of female ski jumpers in the Olympics. Photo: The Canadian Associated Press.

After beating their heads against the stone wall of the IOC – their view – Van and 14 other women jumpers filed a lawsuit against VANOC, the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. Their basis? Canada has laws against gender discrimination, VANOC is a quasi-governmental organization, and $120 million in public funds have been spent on athletic facilities at the Vancouver Games. They lost, and then appealed to the Canadian Supreme Court, which has decided not to hear the case. Attorney Ross Clark, lead counsel for the women, said,

“We are very disappointed the Supreme Court of Canada does not view this as matter of national importance and will not have the opportunity to hear our arguments. This case was not just about women ski jumpers. The textbook gender discrimination found by the lower court judge should have been examined by the highest court in the land in light of its significance to our Charter case.”

Lindsey Van at the Ski Jumping World Championships in 2009.
Lindsey Van at the Ski Jumping World Championships in 2009.

The reasons for not allowing women to ski jump at the Olympic level are varied. First, there is the argument that these female athletes are not good enough (as if this is ever asked of male athletes). There is the contention that the field is too small (at the Olympic level there is a concern that every sport must have high level competitors from multiple countries). But the reason that always confounded me was that there was a rumor that ski jumping damaged women’s ovaries and could lead to infertility.

While no one could substantiate this claim and it never applied to male competitors’ reproductive abilities, the rumor floated in the background of the many conversations that I had with coaches, ski jumpers, and parents over the three years I was a part of the ski jumping world. It also resurfaced in a recent article about the reasons why women were not going to be allowed into the 2010 games: Canadian Walter Sieber, an IOC member who recommended not including the women’s ski jump in the 2010 games, maintains that the decision was not gender-based. Sieber recalled the decision by the IOC to add women’s boxing to the Olympics as proof of the organization’s “true colors.”

But statements made in 2005 by Gian Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation, tell a different story. According to Bryant, Kasper said ski jumping “seems to not be appropriate for the ladies from a medical point of view.” (emphasis mine) Arguing that the women should be included is a moot point; it is something that should have happened long ago. Even the general Canadian population agrees: in a recent poll in Canada 73% of those queried said that women should be allowed to jump in the 2010 games. Canada boosts a strong field of female ski jumpers and so their exclusion makes no logistical or logical sense; the possibility of Canada earning medals in women’s ski jumping is high.

Therefore, the true reason why women will not be allowed to jump remains a partial mystery. Interestingly, the argument that ski jumping leads to infertility in women has a long history in the oppositional rhetoric regarding female entrance into the masculine realm of athletics. Susan Cahn writes extensively about this tension in her book Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in 20th Century Sport.  She states:

“Athletics has long been the province of men…  For many men sport has provided an arena in which to cultivate masculinity and achieve manhood” (3). Many of the opposers to the feminine entrance into sports “…worried that women could ‘feminize’ sport, diluting its masculine content and wording the boundary between male and female spheres of activity” (4).

While women’s inclusion in the world of ski jumping is a contemporary example of the fears of feminization at play in sport, historically the exact same argument (that participating in sport could lead to infertility and that it would damage their health) was used to keep women out of competing in marathons. The first women on record to complete the marathon was Roberta “Bobbi” Gibbs. She stated that she, initially, did not even realize that women were not allowed to run in marathon races.  She just loved to run and so in 1966 she wrote to the Boston Athletic Association that she wanted to compete the Boston Marathon. As Gibbs records in her book, A Run of One’s Own,

“Will Cloney, the race director, wrote back a letter that said that women were not physiologically capable of running 26 miles and furthermore, under the rules that governed international sports, they were not allowed to run.”

“I was stunned. ‘All the more reason to run,’ I thought.”

“At that moment, I knew that I was running for much more than my own personal challenge. I was running to change the way people think. There existed a false belief that was keeping half the world’s population from experiencing all of life. And I believed that if everyone, man and woman, could find the peace and wholeness I found in running, the world would be a better, happier, healthier place.”

Bobbi Gibbs ran the race with hood over her head and without an official start number. She finished in the top third of the marathon in 1966 and completely shattered all beliefs about women being physically capable of running in the marathon.     Katherine SwitzerHowever, the following year another women, Katherine Switzer, entered the race as a man and was discovered on the track by an official who, literally, tried to push her off the road due to her gendered transgression.

Despite the amazing accomplishments of female marathon pioneers who proved that women could run a marathon and do well, even in a field of men, the International Olympic Committee did not allow women to run the marathon in the Olympics until 1984, almost twenty years after the first women publically competed in the marathon.

The argument that running the marathon or ski jumping could damage women’s ovaries and lead to infertility is also deeply rooted in the historical oppression of women. The need to protect women’s health from harm was one of the reasons that women where initially barred from higher education in the 1800s. An article called “Early College Women: Determined to be Educated” cited one influential medical professional in particular: Some of the harshest were medical personal who felt that

“…a girl could study and learn, but she could not do all this and retain uninjured health, and a future secure from neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements of the nervous system,” according to Dr. Edward Clark in his widely respected Sex and Education published in 1873. (emphasis mine)

In 1986 Micheal L. Berger delivered an essay entitled “Women Drivers! The Origins of a 20th Century Stereotype

“that detailed how a women’s delicate physique was one of the reasons that women were not allowed or encouraged to drive when automotives first became popular. However, the denotative reason to keep women from behind the wheel was actually more about “keep[ing] women in their place and to protect them against corrupting influences in society, and within themselves” (257).

Interestingly, the contemporary discussion of whether or not any activity could lead to female infertility indicates that there is still a prevailing belief that the ultimate goal for all women is to reproduce; that our lives outside of motherhood are not nearly as important. This type of rhetoric almost never burdens men (the only example that I know of is discussion of high performance male bicyclists and the potential damage that sitting for extended amounts of time could do to male reproduction). This is despite the fact that several performance enhancement drugs that are widely used by professional and amateur male athletes are known to lead to lower sperm counts and, even, erectile dysfunction. Undoubtedly, someone is trying to keep female ski jumpers in “their place” by barring them, once again, from competing in the Winter Olympics.

When I set out to make Jump like a Girl in 2002 I picked the story of women ski jumpers because their trials were akin to my own struggles as a female athlete growing up.  As someone who enjoyed more “masculine” sports (soccer, track and field, basketball) there was always a feeling of transgression whenever I played that I could never really pinpoint the source of.  I never realized that underneath Lindsey Van’s and Jessica Jerome’s public struggle to ski jump in the Olympics there were also broader issues of female sexuality that have plagued women for centuries.  The plight of female ski jumpers still indicates that we have a long way to go for gender and sexual equity and freedom.  What I hope to see in the future is akin to what Bobbi Gibbs wrote:

“I have always had a vision of a world where men and women can share all of life together in mutual respect, love and admiration; a world where we find health through exercise and through the appreciation of the spirit and beauty of the world and of each other; a world based on love and individual integrity, where we all have a chance to do what we most passionately love, to help others, and to become all we can become.”

Let’s continue to make that vision a reality. Let the women jump.


Ruth Gregory is an Associate Professor of Digital Filmmaking at Shoreline Community College as well as a student in the Masters of Arts in Cultural Studies program at the University of Washington Bothell.  She is new to the blogging sphere, but her other experiments with writing for the ‘net can be read here: http://ruthconsumessomemedia.blogspot.com/


Female Ski Jumping References and Resources:

Other Cited Resources:

Other Resources Regarding Women in Sport:

  • www.womenssportsfoundation.org
  • Lenskyj, Helen. Out of Bounds: Women, Sport, and Sexuality. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1986.
  • Smith‑Rosenberg, Carroll.  Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
  • Burstyn, Varda.  The Rites of Men:  Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport. Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Asking if the “G-spot” exists can be a bit like asking if God (the other G-spot) exists: It depends on who you ask. And in both cases, science is (thus far) ill equipped to adequately measure either G-spot.

For the women’s G-spot, lack of scientific data is due mostly to a lack of guts or interest in measuring a woman’s vagina while being penetrated (no one has done anything close to this since Kinsey). As a result, tales of the G-spot is to this day are seen by scientists as anecdotal at best.

In an attempt to study to G-spot empirically yet “safely” (given the testy political climate for sex researchers), a group of British researchers decided to investigate the question by …

  • Observing women having penetrative sex?
  • Asking women to keep detailed sex journals?
  • Giving women physical exams looking for variations in vaginal interiors?
  • Asking women to test for themselves the area known as a G-spot, and report back to researchers?
  • Investigating a possible relationship between women’s level of curiosity and openness to sexual pleasure, and their understanding of their “G-spot”?

No. The researchers simply created a survey and asked a bunch of female twins if they “believed” they had a “so called G-spot.” Guess what they found?

They found that 56 percent of respondents answered “yes” and that there was no genetic correlation (CNN).

To translate: by “genetic correlation” researchers simply mean that identical twins didn’t give the same answer to the question of whether or not they believed in a “so called G-spot.” (Even though this could simply mean that these twins haven’t had exactly the same sexual partners, exactly the same sexual experiences, and exactly the same sexual education).

Let’s put this into context. What if researchers asked instead if subjects “believed” there is a “so called God”? And what if there was not a statistically significant correlation for twins who both believed in God? Would this mean that scientific researchers could conclude that  a) God is not real, and b) that God (not a belief in God, but that God) is NOT is genetic?  Of course not. The question itself is absurd, as belief systems are not genetically ingrained. They are learned within particular social contexts.

Here’s the point: data about “beliefs” can only be generalized to beliefs and not extended to make absolute truths claims. Despite news headlines now claiming that the “G-spot doesn’t exist,” all this survey tells us is that some women believe in the G-spot, and some don’t. While a sample of identical twins offer researchers the joy of being able to control for biological variation, in my opinion that this study was a waste of the twins’ time.

These are the kind of sexual research methods that drive critical sexuality researchers CRAZY.

Thank “god” there are other sexual researchers who can help us interpret these results. These critical researchers include Debby Herbenick (quoted below in an article from CNN):

The definition of G-spot in the study is too specific and doesn’t take into account that some women perceive their G-spots as bigger or smaller, or higher or lower, said Debby Herbenick, research scientist at Indiana University and author of the book “Because It Feels Good.”

“It’s not so much that it’s a thing that we can see, but it has been pretty widely accepted that many women find it pleasurable, if not orgasmic, to be stimulated on the front wall of the vagina,” said Herbenick, who was not involved in the study.

Thank “god” we also have sex-positive sexual health educators to also help interpret these data, such as the folks at Babeland, a women-owned sex toy store. Babeland bloggers immediately hit upon this story yesterday (they were also interviewed for a local TV news show in their Manhattan location). Babeland blogger Dallas had this to say about the British study:

I have to take serious issue with this research. First, the researchers (or the author of the article) apparently don’t know what the G-spot is. It’s not nerve endings only, but a collection of glands and ducts that surrounds the urethra. Anatomical dissection has already proven that this exists. Defining the G-spot as nerve endings leads me to believe what the research really wanted to know is “do all women experience pleasure from G-spot stimulation?” which is a very different question. Every day when I talk to customers, I have to remind people that everyone is different. What may work for one person won’t work for the next. Thus, I would not be surprised to find that many women didn’t really feel much pleasure when stimulating the G-spot. That’s not the same thing as saying it doesn’t exist.

That said, the researchers relied on women’s self report of whether or not they felt anything. Although I’m all for listening to what women have to say about their bodies, I’ve also talked to hundreds of women about their G-spots and many of them had misunderstood where their G-spot was or how to stimulate it. They were under the impression that their G-spot did nothing for them when in fact, it may have just needed a different touch. Self report can be a terrific way to do research, but in a world where misconceptions about the G-spot abound, it may not accurately reflect women’s G-spot pleasure potential.

I’d love to see a study measuring the changes in G-spot sensations after reading a good book about the G-spot or after attending one of our G-spotworkshops.


Sounds like a perfectly reasoned challenge to me! Scientific G-spot researchers: I encourage you to collaborate with Babeland educators in your next round of investigations.


In his book, Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change, and Social Worlds (1995, Routledge), Ken Plummer explains that when individuals narrate seemingly internal and personal stories about their sexuality, these aren’t very individual or internal at all. Rather, such narratives emerge in themes that are made possible due to specific cultural and political conditions; sexual stories are thus part of larger sexual storytelling culture, and can be understood and made meaningful and visible only via existing cultural frames.

In 1995 Plummer documented three kinds of emerging sexual stories: rape stories, coming out stories, and recovery stories. The year of 2009 brought several unique opportunities of its own to tell sexual stories. Some of these stories reaffirmed and revisited familiar plots to “old” sexual stories, while some forged new territory. We have decided to group this year’s stories (which we have selected with a highly subjective and US based lens) into themes; each theme is a compilation of several individual stories, forming what we see as a larger set of cultural stories being told about the pleasures and dangers of sexuality, and the roles of social institutions in regulating and redefining normative sexual boundaries. Thanks to Phil Cohen, Holly Lewandowski, and Amanda Hess for story leads. Also, thanks to RhReality Check’s Amy Newman for her list of top stories from 2009 (from which we borrowed a few).

#10. “Squeaky-clean”-men-who-cheat stories, starring Tiger Woods!Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren

In her recent article on Tiger Woods, Shari Dworkin debunks widespread psychological and “sex addiction” explanations for Tiger Woods’ affairs:

“Recent media coverage of Tiger Woods’ marital “transgressions” is overflowing. Some argue that Tiger is sex obsessed and has a “sex addiction” given his high sex drive and desire for sex with many women over time. Others argue that any sports star who is on the road and away from home so much has a huge chance of being unfaithful to their wife. (Some media reports argue that it is “rare” to find a faithful male sports star). Still others argue that Tiger Woods’ late father pressed him down under his thumb too much as a youngster and upon his death, Tiger unleashed his “wild side.”  Finally, some news reporters offer that Tiger was “traumatized” as a child when his father cheated on his mother, and that he must just be paradoxically following in dad’s footsteps. But very little media coverage attempts to press beyond an individual level and not many articles offered a much needed broader analysis of masculinity, race, sport, sexuality, and media.”

  • images-3Similar structural and cultural analyses incorporating masculinity and institutional/political power could and should also be applied to the other stars of this story, including: Mark SanfordJohn Ensign, & John Edwards.
  • Additionally, a cross-cultural perspective is needed here as well (e.g. why are these stories so powerful and shaming in the US, but not in European countries?)

#9. Gay-marriage-success stories, starring: Argentina!

Argentina Gay Marriage -- first in Latin America
Latin America's first gay marriage, in Argentina


According to The Guardian: “In Latin America policies and attitudes have mellowed over the past two decades and in most countries it is now illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Buenos Aires, Bogota and Mexico City boast gay pride parades and gay-friendly districts where same-sex couples can kiss and hold hands in public. Yesterday Di Bello, 41, and Freyre, 39, became the continent’s first gay married couple. The pair sidestepped a court ruling blocking their wedding in Buenos Aires by holding the ceremony in Ushuaia, capital of Tierra del Fuego province and the world’s southernmost city. They exchanged rings at a civil ceremony witnessed by state and federal officials, prompting jubilation by gay rights activists and consternation from the Catholic church. “My knees didn’t stop shaking,” said Di Bello. “We are the first gay couple in Latin America to marry” (Guardian.co.uk — Dec. 29, 2009).

Gay-marriage- success stories from 2009 also starred: Mexico City, Washington DC, New Hampshire, Sweden, Iowa, Vermont, and Norway. These are just the states, countries, and cities adopting gay marriage in 2009 and doesn’t include the longer list of locales which legalized domestic partnership in 2009. [The appendix to this is the Gay-Marriage-doom-&-gloom story: starring the Catholic Church (Maine) & the Mormon Church (California, from 2008)]

#8. Multiple-birth stories, starring: Angela Suleman (aka Octo-mom!)


While more women are having multiple-baby births (thanks to IVF technology), not all multiple-birth mothers are viewed the same. Kathryn Joyce from RhReality Check offers an insightful comparison between the highly demonized Angela Suleman (“octo-mom”) and a “Reality TV” family with 18 children:

“Suleman’s newborns were delivered, as it were, into a pop cultural moment of preoccupation with large families. Reality TV shows about families with many children abound on TV’s TLC channel, most notably with the chronicles of the 18-child Duggar family. That the Duggars are grounded in and motivated by the pro-patriarchy Quiverfull movement, with its emphasis on female submission and male headship, is breezily dispensed with in favor of dwelling on the sentimental and zany experiences of life in a 20-person family. “Jon and Kate Plus Eight,” another reality TV show about a large family – this one the result of sextuplets born to a mother who, like Suleman, chose not to selectively reduce the number of embryos that “took” during an IVF treatment – is less burdened by the extremist ideology that undergirds the Duggars’ convictions, but still presents a traditional picture of large family life, with married heterosexual parents and a stay-at-home mother. …. While many observers are concerned with her apparent inability to support such a large family, the fact that she is unmarried has alone been cause enough for others to declare her family a situation of de facto child abuse” (for Joyce’s full article click here).

#7. Homo-hater stories, starring: conservative religious anti-gay activists in Uganda and the US!

Doug Coe, leader of the arch conservative U.S. group, "The Family"
Doug Coe (center), leader of "The Family"


In a recent post on Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill, Kari Lerum wrote that:

“…there is an increasing amount of scrutiny and disgust from many regarding the direct connection between the Ugandan anti-homosexual campaign and a conservative U.S. religious group called “The Family” — which some, including The Observer have called a ” cult” due to the requirement for core members to remain secret about their activities. Regardless of what the group is labeled, it is clear that it has been successful in recruiting high level political leaders including some US congressmen and Uganda’s president Museveni to its core values:  “fighting homosexuality and abortion, promoting free-market economics and dictatorship, an idea they once termed ‘totalitarianism for Christ’ ”

#6. Catholic-priest-cover-up stories, starring: the Irish Catholic Church!

Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern
Irish Justice Minister Ahern at press conference about decades of Priest abuse


As quoted in the LA Times: “Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Dublin engaged in a widespread cover-up of abuses by clergy members for decades, a “scandal on an astonishing scale” that even saw officials taking out insurance policies to protect dioceses against future claims by the victims, a commission reported Thursday after a three-year investigation” (see full article here)

Ross Douthat, a conservative writer for the New York Times and the National Review, describes how a culture of fear around sexuality is precisely the kind of culture that produces sexual abuse — and especially cover-ups of sexual abuse. Douthat concludes that:

“…you can see how it could all go bad — how a culture so intensely clerical, so politically high-handed, and so embarrassed (beyond the requirements of Christian doctrine) by human sexuality could magnify the horror of priestly pedophilia, and expand the pool of victims, by producing bishops inclined to strong-arm the problem out of public sight instead of dealing with it as Christian leaders should. (In The Faithful Departed, his account of the scandal, Philip Lawler claims that while less than five percent of priests were involved in actual abuse, over two-thirds of bishops were involved in covering it up.) I suspect it isn’t a coincidence that the worst of the priest-abuse scandals have been concentrated in Ireland and America — and indeed, in Boston, the most Irish of American cities — rather than, say, in Italy or Poland or Latin America or Asia” (see Douthat’s article here).

# 5. Panic-over-sex/gender/sexuality-fluidity stories, starring: Caster Semenya!

Castor Semenya
18 year old Caster Semenya got a makeover


Mississippi girl fighting for her right to wear a tux for her Senior Class photo
Ceara Sturgis, fighting for her right to wear a tux for her Senior Class photo


Click here for Adina Nack's post on "cross-dress" codes


In her post in Sexuality & Society, Shari Dworkin writes, “While Caster Semenya’s recent “news” seems to have shocked the world, the concern about “gender verification” in sport has taken place for quite some time. The tests have changed over time…but the point has not (e.g. when women are “too good,” they must not be women). …” (see also sociologist Philip Cohen’s story about Semenya, and an update on Caster’s status in the NYT). Note that in these stories there are never any calls for parallel sex verification tests to see if men they are “too much of a man,”—a man that no other “normal” man can hope to “fairly” compete with. This is because of the specific role that sport has historically played in terms of making boys into men (when women compete, there have been numerous fears that they are masculinized and are not “normal” women).

This year’s sex/gender/sexuality-panic stories also starred: Morehouse College‘s dress code, a high school girl wearing a tux, & a 4 yr. old boy kicked out of preschool for having “long” hair.

# 4. Harsher punishments for-sex-with-minors stories, starring: Roman Polanski!

Roman Polanski

Filmmaker Roman Polanski was arrested in 1977 for the sexual assault of a 13 year old girl. He spent 42 days in a California prison and was released. Upon hearing of  a judge’s plan to have him serve more time and possibly deport him, Polanski fled to France. In 1988 Polanski was sued by the girl he assaulted and in 1993 settled with a payment reported at around $500,000. In the  years that have passed Polanski also married (in 1989), had two children, and continued on as a prolific and well regarded film maker.  For reasons that are still murky in terms of timing, Polanski was arrested on Sept. 26, 2009 (32 years after the crime) at the Zurich, Switzerland airport at the request of US authorities. Polanski’s case, spanning decades and continents, offers an insight into how laws and attitudes about sex with minors has changed in the US:

The LA Times reports that “(s)tatutory rape convictions similar to Roman Polanski’s typically result in sentences at least four times longer today than the 90-day punishment a judge favored before the director fled the United States in 1978, a Times analysis of Los Angeles County court records shows. Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland on an international fugitive warrant — and his pending extradition proceedings — have sparked transatlantic debate about whether the 76-year-old Academy Award winner should serve additional time behind bars for having sex with a 13-year-old girl….The Times analyzed sentencing data to determine how L.A. County courts today handle cases in which men admit to statutory rape — also known as unlawful sex with a minor — in exchange for the dismissal of more serious rape charges, as Polanski did. The findings show that those defendants get more time than Polanski has served — even factoring in his 70-day stint in Swiss detention — but less than his critics may expect. … “Thirty years ago, sexual assault — rape and sex crimes — were treated differently,” said Robin Sax, a former sex crimes prosecutor for the L.A. County district attorney’s office. “Time and education haven’t worked for Polanski’s benefit.”

Sociologist Barry Dank, founding editor of the Journal Sexuality & Culture, has blogged extensively about the Polanski case. Dank writes:

“There is no question that what Roman Polanski did to a 13 year old girl in the 1977 was wrong, and illegal. But it is also wrong to drag Polanski back to the US 31 years after the crime and have him spend an unspecified amount of time in prison. What possible good would come about by Polanski doing time for the crime? Obviously, it would not function to rehabilitate him or change him in some way. The fact that Polanski has had a stellar film career and apparently lived a law abiding life for 32 years after the crime is indicative that the case for changing Polanski is simply irrelevant.”

The details of Roman Polanski’s case lies in stark contrast to the case of Phillip Garrido, a registered repeat sex offender who was arrested earlier this year for kidnapping 11 yr old Jacee Dugard, and holding her captive and sexually abusing her for 18 years (from 1991-2009). The young Dugard bore two children out of Garrido’s abuse (now ages 11 and 15).

Despite today’s more stringent punishments for statutory rape, we hope that US jurors and judges will be able to distinguish the vast differences between the sexual crimes of Polanski and Garrido.

# 3. No-condoms-for-those-who-need-it-most stories, starring: Pope Benedict XVI!


While HIV/AIDS rates in sub-saharan Africa continue to soar, and condoms are very effective in fighting HIV/AIDS (when used correctly and consistently) Pope Benedict told Africans that it was wrong to use condoms.

The Pope’s message was also heard in the US, at least among some US Catholic college students. Amanda Hess, writer for the Washington City Paper highlights how all 3,000 students at Catholic University are now prohibited from having sex that is “disruptive”  (defined as “ANY” sexual expression inconsistent with the Catholic Church including premarital sex and same sex sexuality). These rules are written into the code of student conduct. Hess states that:

Deference to the catechism spares Catholic administrators from the awkward enterprise of referring to masturbation, condoms, or any other specific of a typical undergraduate’s sex life” … “violations to the student code can’t be absolved in typically Catholic fashion, with forgiveness administered privately after confession to a priest. At the Catholic University of America, your sins are subject to judicial review” (click here for full article).

Clearly, if the Catholic church cannot discuss sex outside of sex within marriage, they cannot discuss condoms very effectively.

#2. Backlash-against-sexual-&-reproductive-justice stories, starring: the murderer of  Dr. George Tiller!

Gosh, this story is soooo last century (the 80s and 90s were full of anti-abortion terrorism stories), but unfortunately it’s still a story in 2009.

George Tiller

Dr. George Tiller, a doctor who provided late term abortions in Wichita, Kansas, was shot dead while attending Sunday Church services. Jodi Jacobson, Editor of Rh Reality Check explains the importance of Dr. Tiller’s work, as well as the cultural context for how perceptions of his work are widely inaccurate:

“In all the extensive coverage of the assassination in his church of Dr. George Tiller by a murderer affiliated with extremist right-wing groups, little has been said to shed light on what late-term abortions are, who has them and why. Instead, much of the media and talking heads pontificating on this subject have constantly focused on Tiller’s being “one of the very few doctors who perform late-term abortions,” without providing any context as to why he did so and under what circumstances. As a result, the dominant narrative is one which perpetuates an assumption that people are electing to have late-term abortions for the sake of convenience.”   (To read Jacobson’s entire analysis, click here).

And finally, we’d like to end on a positive note, with a list of sexual and reproductive justice stories from 2009:

1. Sexual-&-reproductive-justice stories, starring Barack Obama!

Obama signed and/or was involved in the following sexual health and justice developments:


And although this last bill still needs to be signed, we are expecting Obama to:

  • fulfill his promise to fund evidence-based, scientifically based sex education.

As Kari Lerum noted in a recent post, the movement toward more abstinence-only approaches is driven almost entirely by conservative religious ideology, not scientifically reliable evidence.” Because of the lack of scientific credibility for Abstinence-only sex education, we are hopeful that all funding for abstinence-only sex education will finally be eliminated from the US Federal budget.

We are intrigued by many of this year’s sexual stories, saddened by some, and encouraged by others. May 2010 be filled with opportunities to reframe old (sexist, racist, homophobic, and sex-negative) stories into sexual stories that involve measured discussion of sexual health, sexual justice, and sexual rights.


Kari Lerum & Shari L. Dworkin, Eds. Sexuality & Society.

With 2010 approaching, we are joining in on a tradition of many media/news writers of compiling a list of top ten stories of the past year. Since we only launched Sexuality & Society three months ago, we need your help! We are looking for stories from around the globe related to sexuality, culture, health, and politics from the past year. Please email us at sexuality@thesocietypages.org with your ideas (and we’ll be sure to credit you as well).

Best Regards,

Kari Lerum & Shari Dworkin, Eds, Sexuality & Society

“Sexting” — the practice of sending sexy words and images from cell phones from person to person– has suddenly emerged as the newest social problem for American youth. News reports overwhelmingly describe sexting as a new teenage trend which is “alarming,” “dangerous,” and “shocking.” Parents of minors are told be on red alert. Sales are on the rise for “net nanny” controls, which alert parents via a text message if their child visits an “inappropriate” web site and/or sends or receives “inappropriate” email or instant messages. Parents are advised to pay extra cell phone fees to block all images–sexual or not—from their children’s phones. The underlying message of most news reports is this: if parents don’t put a stop to sexting, their children will end up traumatized, endangered, in jail, or dead. Read on, as we’re not making this up.

This sort of alarmist language, suddenly emerging as a sort of moral tsunami, is a fantastic example of what sociologist Stanley Cohen has termed a “moral panic.” According to Cohen, moral panics are reflections not of any inherent physical threat but of threats to existing moral orders. Moral panics are driven by the construction of a “folk devil” — symbolized by a group or a social movement seen as causing a threat to a particular moral order. Using this framework, the moral panic around sexting reflects deeper social fears — for example around loss of parental authority and increasing teen agency over their own sexuality. The folk devil responsible for this moral threat lives in “cyberspace” and in some cases may be “cyberspace” itself.

From what I can tell, the growing visibility of, and panic over, sexting was at first largely generated by media personalities such as Dr. Phil and Matt Lauer of the Today Show. Since then, dozens of news outlets have featured stories on sexting. Surveys on sexting have been quickly conducted and released: MTV asked teens about the prevalence of their sexting; CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health asked parents about how concerned they were about teen sexting. The results, as reported in the media are as follows: Teens are sexting like crazy, and parents are freaking out.

imagesDr. Phil was one of the first to discuss this on a national stage with a show in April 2009 called, “Scary Trends: Is your Child at Risk?” In the video promo for the show, Dr. Phil warns in his classic fatherly drawl: “There are some dangerous trends popping up in schools everywhere, and you may not even know if your children are getting involved.”

The camera cuts to video shots of three pairs of young white hands (two identifiably female) punching keys on a cell phone. A voiceover from deep, spooky-sounding male voice says: “The disturbing new trend, called sexting, sending nude shots from phone to phone.” (the word NUDE is flashed on screen).

Next we see and hear clips of a white woman talking about her daughter, who we gather, was a “sexter.” The spooky male voiceover comes back: “It nearly killed her daughter.” The camera shoots back to the mom, eyes pleading for Dr. Phil’s forgiveness: We thought we were doing everything right, Dr. Phil.” Dr. Phil nods, knowingly. The Spooky voiceover states: “how to protect your children.” The camera cuts back to Dr. Phil, who points to the camera and warns: “Don’t think it’s not your kid!” (Click here to see this short promo).

Dr. Phil’s “Scary Trends” program arrived on the heels of a few stories, some tragic, found in the news in the previous weeks and months. For example, in separate cases, two teenage boys (one in Wisconsin, one in New York) were charged with “child pornography” after sharing digital photos of their girlfriends posing nude. In another case, four middle school girls in Alabama were arrested for exchanging naked photos of themselves (ABC news, March 13, 2009). In all of these cases, the photos were being exchanged for and among peers. None of these photos were sold.  And yet, teens taking pictures of themselves, their partners, and/or their friends are now being labeled and punished as child pornographers by the criminal justice system.

The most tragic stories however are of two teen girl suicides; both killed themselves after they were viciously bullied, sexually shamed, and socially isolated from their peers. In both cases the girls were inadequately defended, and even further shamed and punished by, teachers, school administrators, and parents. Jesse Logan, a vivacious 18 year-old from Ohio hanged herself in her bedroom after being targeted for torment by other girls at school. Jesse had tdy_lauer_sexting_090306.300wsent a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend, and in retaliation when they broke up the boyfriend sent the photo to a group of younger girls. The younger girls ran with the photo, using it as a powerful social shaming tool (which of course can only work within a social context where girls’ sexuality is shameful). In an interview with Matt Lauer of the Today Show, Jesse’s mother, Cynthia Logan, said that:

“…she never knew the full extent of her daughter’s anguish until it was too late. Cynthia Logan only learned there was a problem at all when she started getting daily letters from her daughter’s school reporting that the young woman was skipping school.

“I only had snapshots, bits and pieces, until the very last semester of school,” Logan told Lauer. She took away her daughter’s car and drove her to school herself, but Jesse still skipped classes. She told her mother there were pictures involved and that a group of younger girls who had received them were harassing her, calling her vicious names, even throwing objects at her. But she didn’t realize the full extent of her daughter’s despair. “She was being attacked and tortured,” Logan said.

“When she would come to school, she would always hear, ‘Oh, that’s the girl who sent the picture. She’s just a whore,’ ” Jesse’s friend, Lauren Taylor, told NBC News.

Logan said that officials at Sycamore High School were aware of the harassment but did not take sufficient action to stop it. She said that a school official offered only to go to one of the girls who had the pictures and tell her to delete them from her phone and never speak to Jesse again. That girl was 16. Logan suggested talking to the parents of the girls who were bullying Jesse, but her daughter said that would only open her to even more ridicule.

In this same interview with Matt Lauer, Cynthia Logan described her unsuccessful legal attempts (she tried six attorneys) to hold school officials accountable for not intervening in the bullying of her daughter. Lauer turned to his guest, Parry Aftab, described as “an Internet security expert and activist in the battle to protect teens from the dangers that lurk in cyberspace.” In a stunning re-direction of the issue of school accountability for creating bully-free zones, Aftab brought the discussion back to laws about child pornography:

“If somebody’s under the age of 18, it’s child pornography, and even the girl that posted the pictures can be charged. They could be registered sex offenders at the end of all of this. Even at the age of 18, because it was sent to somebody under age, it’s disseminating pornography to a minor. There are criminal charges that could be made here.”

Here’s the take home message we get from the Today Show: don’t worry about madonna/whore dichotomies that are spread among youth and adults. The main thing we should be concerned with is that Jesse “fell victim to the perils of the Internet and the easy exchange of information on cell phones.” So let’s be clear: The source of Jesse’s anguish and eventual suicide is not the unrelenting and unchecked bullying at school but the fact that cyberspace (folk devil that it is) made her into a perpetrator of child pornography. And don’t forget, parents: child pornographers go to jail, and you don’t want your kid to go to jail.

Hope Witsell was only 13 when she killed herself in her bedroom, also by hanging. Hope, a girl from a conservative Christian Florida family, hadg-tdy-091202-texting-suicide-peace-8a.300w sent a topless photo of herself to a boy crush. The boy showed the photo to a friend, who embraced the opportunity to gain social power by sharing it widely with kids in that school and neighboring schools. The following comes from a story about Hope on Today, MSNBC.com:

While Hope’s photo spread, her friends rallied around her in the midst of incessant taunting and vulgar remarks thrown Hope’s way. Friends told the St. Petersburg Times, which originally chronicled Hope’s story, that they literally surrounded Hope as she walked the hallways while other students shouted “whore” and “slut” at her.

“The hallways were not fun at that time — she’d walk into class and somebody would say, ‘Oh, here comes the slut,’ ” Hope’s friend, Lane James, told the newspaper.

Clearly, the taunts were getting to Hope. In a journal entry discovered after her death, Hope wrote, “Tons of people talk about me behind my back and I hate it because they call me a whore! And I can’t be a whore. I’m too inexperienced. So secretly, TONS of people hate me.”

Shortly after the school year ended, school officials caught wind of the hubbub surrounding Hope’s cell phone photo. They contacted the Witsells and told them Hope would be suspended for the first week of the next school year.

Donna Witsell told Vieira that she and her husband practiced tough love on Hope, grounding her for the summer and suspending her cell phone and computer privileges.

In her interview on the Today Show with Meredith Vieira, Hope’s mother was joined, just as Jesse’s mom was, by the same Parry Aftab, proponent of internet safety measures. Again, Aftab directed the viewers away from thinking about adult accountability in protecting the rights of teens to not be shamed and bullied about their bodies. In fact, parents and their girls are all innocent here in Aftab’s view. Aftab even reassured Hope’s mother that her child wasn’t a bad girl; in fact, Aftab points out that Hope’s suicide is actually a sign that she came from a “good” home because kids with good morals have more guilt when they stray sexually:

Good kids are the ones this is happening to; Jesse was a great kid, and now we have Hope,” she said. “Good kids; they’re the ones who are committing suicide when a picture like this gets out.” (Parry Afteb, speaking to Hope Witsell’s mother on the Today Show).

Dr. Phil, the Today Show, and countless other media sources are doing teens, and especially girls a great disservice by offering content, tone, and implications of their sexting panic. Instead, a much more helpful and interesting perspective on the issue would be to explore the following questions and lines of reasoning:

  • What are the gendered sexual, class, and race dynamics of the panic over sexting? It seems that white “good” girls are at most “risk”: let’s talk about why, and what it is that is at stake! Should we panic over boys as well?
  • Why do so many adults remain complicit in the sexual shaming and bullying of kids? What models can be used to talk openly about sexuality at school, and to create a safe learning environment for all kids regardless of their sexual expressions?
  • Related to the above, how do school curriculums that teach/preach abstinence only sex education (which implicitly and explicitly underscore a Madonna/Whore dichotomy) encourage and facilitate the bullying and shaming of girls? How do they set up a gendered system that assumes that girls are usually sexual victims and boys are usually predators?
  • How can sexual health and justice scholars work with parents, teachers, school administrators, and teen advocates around these issues?
  • How does a concern with protecting girls’ sexual purity come at the expense of NOT protecting their sexual and human rights?

Recommended readings & resources:

In the past several days there has been growing global dismay and disapproval over Uganda’s “kill the gays bill” (to use Rachel Maddow’s term). As well there is an increasing amount of scrutiny and disgust from many regarding the direct connection between the Ugandan anti-homosexual campaign and a conservative U.S. religious group called “The Family” — which some, including The Observer have called a ” cult” due to the requirement for core members to remain secret about their activities. Regardless of what the group is labeled, it is clear that it has been successful in recruiting high level political leaders including some US congressmen and Uganda’s president Museveni to its core values:  “fighting homosexuality and abortion, promoting free-market economics and dictatorship, an idea they once termed “totalitarianism for Christ’ ” (as quoted by Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, 2008). This post is a follow up on my last post on this issue and a compilation of several news stories for the purpose of updating concerned readers on the Uganda situation. I start with snippets of a Nov. 25, 2009 article from The Observer which describes the history and ideology of “The Family” (I have put some words in bold for emphasis; also note that the article below mispells Sharlet as “Sharlett”). I end with a very preliminary list of groups lining up in opposition to this bill.

Museveni, Bahati, named in US ‘cult’ (click here for the full article in The Observer) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 25 November 2009 20:45
NEW YORK: “President Museveni, Ethics Minister Nsaba Buturo and MP David Bahati have been linked to a shadowy religious fundamentalist group in the United States known as the ‘The Family’.  …According to journalist, academic and author Jeff Sharlett, who has spent years researching on The Family, its core agenda includes fighting homosexuality and abortion, promoting free-market economics and dictatorship, an idea they once termed ‘totalitarianism for Christ’. “  

“It recruits people in positions of power and influence to promote its agenda and, according to Sharlett, the group has had its sights on Uganda for over 20 years. He also says the group is behind the anti-gay legislation recently tabled in Parliament by Ndorwa West MP, David Bahati, which proposes the death penalty for men who have gay sex with disabled people, under-18s, or when the accused is HIV-positive.”

“In an extensive interview with National Public Radio (NPR), a privately and publicly funded non-profit radio network in the United States, Jeff Sharlett said that The Family identified President Museveni as their “key man in Africa” in 1986.  …”

“Describing Museveni as a “core” member of the group, Jeff Sharlett alleged that President Museveni visits, spends time and “sits down for counsel” with Doug Coe, the leader of The Family, at the group’s headquarters at a place called The Cedars in Arlington, Virginia.

The Observer reporter continues:

“One of The Family’s central ideas, according to Jeff Sharlett, is that Jesus Christ’s message was not about love, mercy, justice or forgiveness. Rather, it was about power. The group says that Jesus didn’t come to take sides, he came to take over. Doug Coe, the leader of the group, tries to illustrate this, for instance, by saying, sort of posing a puzzle: name three men in the 20th Century who best understood that message of The New Testament. And most people are going to say someone like Martin Luther King, or Bonhoeffer; or maybe the more conservative, they can say, [evangelist] Billy Graham.  And Coe likes to give an answer – Hitler, Stalin and Mao, which just makes your jaw drop. And he will say – he’s quick to say these are evil men, but they understood power. And that message recurs again, and again, and again in The Family,’ Sharlett said.”

“Sharlett, who spent time within The Family as an undercover researcher, given access to its leaders and archives, said that the group actively promotes dictators in pursuit of its economic and other interests. Because of its influence in Washington, the seat of the American government, foreign leaders find it in their interest to associate with the group.”

“Senator Tom Coburn, who also sits on the Senate Arms Forces Committee, is quoted to have said he has been on a mission to Uganda to “promote the political philosophy of Jesus as taught to him by Doug Coe.” … Jeff Sharlett says he has established in recent investigations that the group has been channeling money to Uganda to promote its activities, including the anti-gay Bill. … “The Family has poured millions of dollars working through a very convoluted chain of linkages passing the money over to Uganda,” he said. According to Jeff Sharlett, in Uganda, Museveni, Buturo and Bahati are not merely under the influence of The Family but they are, in effect, The Family.

“The Family, also known as The Fellowship, was founded in the United States in 1935. According to its founder, Abraham Verene, God came to him one night in April, 1935, and told him that Christianity has been focusing on the wrong people, the poor and the suffering, “the down and out”. He commanded him to be a missionary to and for the powerful, the “up and out”, who could then pass off the blessings to everybody else.”

Doug Coe the head (or perhaps more aptly titled, “the godfather”) of The Family does not have the name or face recognition of other conservative evangelical Christian leaders such Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, or Rick Warren (in fact, it is very difficult to find ANY good or current photos of the man online). Nevertheless he is well known in Washington DC amongst politicians and has considerable political influence domestically and globally. In 2005, Time Magazine named him one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. As reported by Time:

Several members of Congress live in rooms rented in a town house owned by a foundation affiliated with the group. Coe and his associates sometimes travel (on their own dime) with congressional members abroad and—according to investigations by the Los Angeles Times and Harper’s—have played backstage roles in such diplomatic coups as the 1976 Camp David accords…

While Time Magazine named Coe and described his organization over four years ago, only in the past several months has The Family began receiving serious, and critical, media attention. This attention began after Jeff Sharlet published his book on the Family in 2008, and escalated after the summer of 2009 political sex scandals of Senator John Ensign and S. Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, both of whom are connected to the group. With the introduction of the Uganda anti-homosexual bill in October 2009, The Family and other US based evangelical Christians such as Rick Warren became subjects of widespread academic and human rights critique.

In the past few days scores of politicians, global public health workers, human rights groups, and religious leaders have denounced this bill as a fascist, even genocidal, act. Below is a sample of those making public oppositional statements:

Politicians: Senator Russ Feingold “has warned that relations between Uganda and the United States would suffer because of a proposed Bill against homosexuality. Mr Russ Feingold, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Africa, said he was outraged by the Anti-homosexuality Bill proposed by Ndorwa West MP David Bahati.” (US Senator joins critics of Anti-homosexuality Bill (Dec 14) Daily Monitor)

Public health officials: According to Stephen Lewis, the former United Nations envoy on AIDS in Africa, “This intended anti-homosexual statute has the taste of fascism.”.. “The proposed law would “demonize homosexuality” and “intensify stigma,” driving gays underground and making it much more difficult to prevent the spread of AIDS…”. (http://www.stephenlewisfoundation.org/)

Human rights groups: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both released statements in absolute opposition to this bill.

Religious leaders: Several moderate US Christian leaders have expressed opposition to this bill. Some Conservative evangelical Christian religious leaders  in the US are also now coming out against it. After several calls by human rights activists and reporters, US evangelical pastor Rick Warren released a video statement to Ugandan Christian leaders asking them to not support the bill (while maintaining that God does not support homosexuality). Warren has been identified as closely tied to Ugandan anti-gay activist Martin Ssempa. Click here to view Warren’s video address and read Amie Newman’s analysis.

The growing multi-sector, and increasingly multi-national, opposition to Uganda’s anti-homosexual bill is heartening. The bill itself has been temporarily “tabled.” However the hatred and fear stirred up by US-based anti-gay activists in Uganda and surrounding African countries is enormous, and will take much work to reverse. Building coalitions between Ugandan and African-based human rights activists, moderate religious leaders, and HIV/AIDS workers is an obvious step. But another, perhaps more crucial step in the US is for the politicians to finally uphold their commitment to a separation of Church and State. It may be time for the White House and Congress to officially sever its ties with The Family.

See also:

In yesterday’s news, CNN reporter Saeed Ahmed asks “Why is Uganda attacking homosexuality?” As Ahmed reports, the Anti-Homosexuality Bil in this Eastern African nation (introduced in October, and expected to pass by the end of December) “features several provisions that human rights groups say would spur a witch hunt of homosexuals in the country.” Punishments for homosexual sex will include:

Uganda is bordered by the East African coastal nations of Kenya and Tanzania


  • life in prison
  • possible execution for people who test positive for HIV
  • three years in prison for anyone who knows of homosexual activity taking place but does not report it
  • possible execution for homosexual sex with a minor, or engaging in homosexual sex more than once.

Although it is already illegal to engage in “homosexuality” in Uganda, this law would tighten and broaden the punishments. As Ahmed writes,

  • The bill also “forbids the ‘promotion of homosexuality,’ which in effect bans organizations working in HIV and AIDS prevention,” and
  • “(i)It applies even to Ugandans participating in same-sex acts in countries where such behavior is legal. They are supposed to be brought back to Uganda and convicted here.”

This level of virulent hatred against gay people is a dramatic contrast to the gradual shift in many parts of the globe toward more acceptance and/or legal decriminalization of homosexuality, including a United Nations Declaration calling for a global decrimimalization of homosexuality. This UN Declaration was signed by the Obama administration in March 2009 (after the Bush administration refused to sign):

In announcing U.S. support, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the U.N. declaration is consistent with the U.S. commitment to being an outspoken defender of human rights. The United States “is pleased to join the other 66 U.N. members states who have declared their support of the statement that condemns human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity wherever the occur,” Wood said (Washington Post, March 18, 2009).

The United States has close diplomatic ties to Uganda, sending Peace Corps volunteers and massive aid through Pepfar and USAID. The current US State Department profile on Uganda argues that Uganda it is actually doing WELL on human rights issues:

“(s)ince assuming power, Museveni and his government have largely put an end to the human rights abuses of earlier governments, initiated substantial economic liberalization and general press freedom, and instituted economic reforms in accord with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and donor governments.”  (US State Department, profile of the Republic of Uganda).

Hmmmm. It seems that the US State Department needs to update their assessment of Uganda’s human rights. My question is: why Uganda, and why now? According to Amie Newman from Rh Reality Check and a report by Political Research Associates, conservative US evangelicals are directly linked to bringing Uganda to this homo-hating mess. Below I quote extensively from Newman’s recent post on this issue:

Amie Newman“Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality law currently on the table, before Parliament, is an especially vicious piece of legislation that seeks to impose life imprisonment and the death penalty upon those who are involved in  “homosexual crimes.” In this era of growing rights, in the United States, for LGBT individuals, one may be excused for thinking that laws like the one in Uganda are completely unrelated to the Christian, religious right in the U.S., responsible in large part for the onslaught of attacks against LGBT equal rights in this country. However, according to “Globalizing the Culture Wars”, a new report produced by Political Research Associates and released today, laws like the one in Uganda can be seen as the direct result of a campaign by United States neoconservative religious groups to use Africa as another player in the culture wars they have fomented on American soil for many years.” According to the PRA report:

“Conservative U.S. evangelicals play a strong role in promoting homophobia in Africa by spreading their views and underwriting the widespread conservative educational, social service, and financial infrastructure. Right-wing groups have enticed African religious leaders to reject funding from mainline denominations – which require documentation of how the money is spent – and instead to accept funds form conservatives. This money usually goes to individual bishops without accountability or oversight for how it is used.”

Newman writes: ” The truth is that Conservative leaders in this country, like Pastor Rick Warren, have put tremendous effort into cultivating relationships with African clerics who can help further their strong anti-gay agenda, while simultaneously contributing to the vicious homophobia in African nations.” …

US evangelical leader, directly implicated in Uganda's draconian anti-gay movement
US evangelical leader Rick Warren -- who despite gay activist protests led the invocation for Obama's inauguration. Warren is implicated in Uganda's draconian anti-gay movement


Newman continues:

“Pastor Warren has strong ties to Pastor Martin Ssempa, a conservative, religious leader in Uganda who has been the recipient of PEPFAR funds (the U.S. AIDS plan which distributes funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment) and is extremely vocal and active about his homophobic beliefs. There are many churches in Uganda, and other African nations, that are the direct recipients of U.S. federal funding via PEPFAR, used to implement clear religious agendas (vocally supported by Pastor Warren) such as requirements for spending a share of funding on abstinence-until-marriage.”  …

Newman points to a list of recommendations provided by the PRA report, including:

  • “exposing and confronting U.S. religious conservatives (like Pastor Rick Warren) who foment homophobia in Africa,
  • exposing the financial ties between African conservatives and various American institutions (like our very own federal government),
  • and maybe most importantly supporting African activists and scholars to lead the struggle for LGBT rights and the study of sexuality in Africa. “

Newman concludes by stating that “th)e U.S. neo-conservative movement is working tirelessly to push a religious agenda in Africa that serves their own purposes. As we continue the fight for LGBT rights in our own country, the report reminds us that it is critical we use our peripheral vision to see the bigger picture if we are to truly win the war against religious evangelicalism’s homophobia, and not just individual battles.”

We at Sexuality & Society could not agree more. The current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton might agree as well. Hillary Clinton’s recent condemnation of international homophobia may help put a stop to this; other world leaders also need to take a strong stand against homophobia and human rights abuses on the basis of sexuality. The US State Department should also reconsider its development assistance to Uganda, and should partner with other nations (including South Africa, which has freedoms for gays written right into their constitution) in the struggle for global human rights.

ABC news recently featured a story about “Pure Fashion,” a U.S. faith-based program that leads 14-18 year-old girls “through an eight-month course in which they are encouraged to ‘dress in accordance with their dignity as children of God.'” The eight month course ends with a “‘purity preserving’ fashion show.”

The obsession with, monitoring of, and handwringing over girls’ (sexualized) appearance is of course not new, but this particular iteration comes from an ironic source: a fashion model and former Miss Georgia, Brenda Sharman. Sharman may be preaching “purity” but she also understands that her message will be considered more hip if she can dissociate from conservative and/or mainstream culture. Hence, Sharman is on a mission to reframe “pure” girls as “radical” girls:

Brenda Sharman: model, former Miss Georgia, and founder of Pure Fashion.
Brenda Sharman: model, former Miss Georgia, and founder of Pure Fashion.


“The idea with Pure Fashion is very countercultural,” said Brenda Sharman … “It takes a girl who is brave and gutsy…This is not for the weak and wimpy girl … to say, ‘I’m different, and I’m going to preserve my innocence and virginity,’ that’s a girl who’s radical!”

Scene from the Pure Fashion catwalk
Scene from the Pure Fashion catwalk


The problem is, radical, counter-cultural movements are supposed to challenge and pave new ground. In contrast, the leaders and proponents of Pure Fashion look to conservative established models for their inspiration. They are mothers, fathers, and church leaders who are deeply disturbed by the sexual displays (assumed to be impure) of their unmarried daughters. This may be a radical backlash to signifiers of sexuality or the de-coupling of sexuality and reproduction, but it’s not radical.

Concerns about sexually expressive girls and women is common amongst groups whose cultural and religious norms privilege men and/or believe that men and women have naturally different physical capabilites and personalities. As Shari Dworkin and I argued in a recent article,

“(c)ultural and religious traditions that privilege men always require intense regulation and surveillance of girls’ and women’s sexuality. In these contexts, the moral and social ‘worth’ of girls and women is based on their sexual availability, creating a good virgin-bad whore dichotomy. This tradition is thriving in many aspects of U.S.  culture, including the movement for abstinence-only education, virginity pledges, purity ball, and so on” (Lerum and Dworkin, 2009b).

It is clear that “Pure Fashion” can be added to the list of cultural institutions that support a hierarchical segregation between “virgins” and “whores.” For example, one mom who sent her daughter to “Pure Fashion” expressed her desire for men to look at her daughter in the same way that she looks at her daughter, as “pure and beautiful and innocent”:

“I don’t want her to be distracted by men. So I kind of don’t want men to look at her at all, not notice her,” Tina said. “But I recognize that they will, so I just want to make sure they look at her in the way that I see her, which is pure and beautiful and innocent.”

But conservative religious parents aren’t the only one sounding the alarm horns; many feminist and feminist-leaning academics and professionals are also concerned about sexy and sexual girls. This is because mainstream media appears to create the opposite problem of conservative religion: that is, rather than telling girls and women that their worth is based on their lack of sexual availability, the media appears to “tell” girls and women that their worth is based on their widespread sexual appeal and availability. They may leave God and purity talk out of it and they may not send their daughters to Sharman’s fashion reeducation program, but secular, feminist, and academic critics are still dismayed by girls who dress “sexy.” Indeed, it has become common for people across lines of politics, religion, and profession — at least in the US — to shake their heads in dismay over the increasing “sexualization” of girls, women, and of culture. This perceived shift in mainstream US culture is almost uniformly seen as harmful, something to critique and work against. It is in this cultural context that the American Psychological Association formed a task force on the Sexualization of Girls and wrote a highly publicized report (APA Task Force report on the Sexualization of Girls 2007).  (See below for the APA’s definition of “sexualization”).

In contrast to the APA task force and conservative religious groups, we think it is a mistake for scholars and activists to automatically assume that sexualized images and appearances are harmful to girls and women. We critique the methodological, empirical, and epistemological foundations of this argument in great depth in a recent article (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009a), but here I focus on just one point: how the concern about “sexualization” misses the boat on sexual health. While the APA task force briefly discusses what they consider to constitute “healthy sexuality,” we argue that the term “sexual health” is much more useful for social justice, feminist, and public health scholars/activists:

… we suspect that an ideological gulf may exist between the APA’s (2007) concept of healthy sexuality and the more widely recognized concept of sexual health. For one, the APA’s version of healthy sexuality seems to rely on the existence of a sexual partner: (‘‘intimacy, bonding . . . shared pleasure . . . mutual respect between consenting partners,’’ p. 2). In contrast, the concept of sexual health is often explicitly tied to a rubric of individual sexual rights (some of which may apply to both children and adults). Originally developed by the World Association for Sexual Health and now widely recognized (and modified) by other organizations including the World Health Organization, the concept of sexual rights may include the right to sexual pleasure (not necessarily with another person), the right to emotional sexual expression (including self-sexualization), and the right to sexually associate freely (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009, p. 259).

We further argue that “(s)ounding the alarms on sexualization without providing space for sexual rights results in a setback for girls and women and for feminist theory, and is also at odds with the growing consensus of global health scholars (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009, p. 260).

While the APA task force report virtually ignores sexual health, statistics about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are widely embraced and utilized by conservative religious groups. The following quote comes from Brenda Sharman, director of “Pure Fashion”:

“If you are too steamy in your bikini, you will become a part of a statistic,” Sharman told a roomful of 40 girls at the Atlanta conference. “By the age of fifteen, 76 percent of teens are involved in a sexual relationship. What do we expect, really, when so many girls have displayed their bodies to the world? … For the first time teen girls have the highest gonorrhea rate in the nation, teen boys have the second. Approximately 400,000 teens have abortions every year. And according to UNICEF, half of all new HIV infections occur in young people 15-24.”

Of course, Sharman’s use of these statistics is alarmist and conflated (e.g., the UNICEF statistics are GLOBAL, reflecting more about conditions of access to contraception, early marriage, and/or extreme poverty than whether or not a girl has access to a bikini!), but it is also clear that conservatives are using them to shore up a particular theory of sexuality (i.e. bad things happen when girls get sexy). For critical scholars of sexuality, justice, health, and inequality, these statistics illustrate points and questions around a very different set of assumptions. We leave these interpretations to the conservatives at our own peril.


The APA task force defines sexualization as a condition that occurs when a person is subjected to at least one of the following four conditions:

  • 1) a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics,
  • 2) a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy
  • 3) a person is sexually objectified – that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making, and/or
  • 4) sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person          (APA Task Force, 2007, p. 2)


Bibliography/Recommended Reading:


If you are reading this blog from a computer or phone within the United States, you are well aware that health care reform debates are coming to a head. The latest controversy over just how, and for whom, health care reform will become institutionalized comes in the form of the Stupak amendment, which the The Wall Street Journal describes as “a last-minute amendment toughening abortion restriction in the House health-care bill….” backed by “(t)he U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a powerful force behind the strong abortion language in the House.”  Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal also reports that “Planned Parenthood …. has started a petition drive that has been promoted by Cosmopolitan magazine,” and that  “(a)ctivists hope to flood Washington to rally and lobby on Dec. 2, during the week that Senate floor debate begins.”

A protester in Los Angeles last Friday

To better understand this issue from the perspective of reproductive and sexual justice activists, I turned to a former student of mine, Courtney Bell. Courtney received her M.A. in Public Policy from the University of Washington, Bothell in 2008 and is currently working as a Public Affairs Field Organizer for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest.


Message Number Three

by Courtney Bell

As a community organizer for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, I have had the privilege of joining our supporters on the front lines of the debate over health care reform these past few months. Together, we have generated thousands of contacts into the offices of our members of Congress, expressing support for reproductive health care and advocating for its inclusion as part of any basic health care package.

And it’s been a bumpy ride. When Planned Parenthood Federation of America kicked off our organizing campaign for Health Care Reform early last summer, we had three primary messages to convey:

  1. Reproductive health care must be included in any health care reform package. Reproductive health care is basic health care and real reform includes women’s health.
  2. Essential community providers must be included in health plan networks so that patients can access health care from the trusted providers in their communities.
  3. Women must not be worse off after health care reform than they are today.

When I first heard Message #3, I thought to myself, “Duh! Isn’t that kind of a no-brainer of a goal to be working toward? Surely, if health care reform is passed, this is the only outcome to be expected.” I knew that health care reform was all about expanded access to care for millions of people, and currently there are more than 17 million women in the United States who are uninsured.

But now, having participated in three chaotic and infuriating (read: teabagger) Health Care Reform town halls in Western Washington, countless nationwide phone banks, and two advocacy days on the Hill in Washington DC over the past few months, I see that clearly, Message #3 has become our paramount concern. On November 8th, the House passed its version of Health Care Reform with the inclusion of the Stupak-Pitts Amendment. Under this amendment, millions of women will lose access to private insurance coverage for abortion care. And as reported in a study by the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, “the treatment exclusions required under the Stupak/Pitts Amendment will have an industry-wide effect, eliminating coverage of medically indicated abortions over time for all women, not only those whose coverage is derived through a health insurance exchange.”

It has been a founding principle of Health Care Reform, as articulated by President Obama, that no one will lose the benefits they currently have. Make no mistake: this is exactly what will happen if the Stupak-Pitts Amendment makes it into the final version of the bill.

Fortunately, the Senate version of Health Care Reform currently excludes this disastrous language. We must do all that we can to ensure that when the final bill comes before our President for a signature, it is one that respects our fundamental rights.


If you are interested in joining Planned Parenthood in this fight to ensure that women will not be worse off after health care reform than they are today, Courtney offers three action plans:

1. Sign the petition to President Obama, Majority Leader Reid, and Speaker Pelosi. It’s the first step to stopping the Stupak ban and protecting women’s access to abortion coverage.

2. Join Planned Parenthood in DC on December 2 for a National Lobby Day, when Planned Parenthood and allies will be taking this message straight to Congress.

3. Read the Issue Brief: Impact of Stupak Amendment on Access to Abortion Coverage and Care and share with others.


Additional readings from reproductive health and justice experts on the Stupak amendment:

In the past few weeks there have been several new stories (at least the U.S.)  about young people dressing “queer”  (in other words, playing with gender and not adhering to a rigid sex/gender system), while some school officials wring their hands in dismay. Some officials respond by attempting to BAN gender non-conformity at school, such as we see in the Morehouse College case and in the case of the girl who is fighting to wear a tux for her Senior class photo. One school principle attempted to simply CANCEL an event where gender/sexual non-conformity might be displayed (Alabama prom story). Meanwhile, one official response to gender non-conformity in India has been to simply add another official sex/gender category: voters can now register one of three sexes: male, female, or “other.”

These new developments are gratifying for me to witness, even those that are hotly contested. Sanctions around “appropriate” behavior and appearance expectations are not new, but perhaps what is new is a larger coalition of people (including parents, teachers, students, scholars, and community members) who understand that gender norms are not static, but simply reflective of existing sex/gender/sexuality systems. This larger coalition is part of the reason why Ceara Sturgis, the girl who wants to wear a tux for her Senior class photo, can be so courageous: “I’m standing up for a bunch of people who support me,” she said. “It’s an honor.” This is new, and very exciting.

That said, courage is needed on many fronts when it comes to working for sex/gender/sexuality justice. For the 11th year in a row, we are reminded of the fact that many people still hate and fear gender non-conformists so much that they murder them.

ritahesterThe Transgender Day of Remembrance was initially a response to the murder of Rita Hester, which occurred 11 yrs ago this week (Nov. 28, 1998). Rita’s murder occurred just 5 weeks after the murder of Matthew Shepard (who died of his injuries on Oct. 12, 1998). The story of Matthew Shepard inspired a jaw dropping amount of attention and activism, culminating with The Matthew Shepard Act (criminal justice legislation which imposes harsher penalties for perpetrators of hate crimes) signed by Obama just last month.

In contrast to the mainstream recognition of Matthew Shepard, few in the mainstream, even in the gay movement, have heard of Rita Hester. Unlike Matthew, a white, middle class college boy, Rita Hester was African American, transgendered, and made a living in part through performance. Though the movement inspired by Rita has had to be more grassroots (no People magazine features here), it has been steadily growing. And today, not just in the U.S. but internationally, there are more than 120 separate vigils and events scheduled in remembrance of all the Ritas of the world. eleventh1Please see below for a marvelous article on the meaning of today’s events from Jos, a trans identified author writing for Feministing.com:

Today is the 11th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. This day was created as a time to grieve trans and gender non-conforming people killed over the past year because of fear and hatred. It also serves as a time to raise awareness about violence against trans folks. The event was started by Gwendolyn Ann Smith following the murder of Rita Hester on November 28, 1998. Every year since the day’s founding vigils and memorial events have been held in the US and increasingly all over the world.

This year the TGEU Trans Murder Monitoring project TDOR 2009 update has collected information about over 160 people killed because of other people’s violent reaction to their trans presentation or identity. These numbers represent only those people we know about. We don’t know how many trans folks were actually murdered this year – our identities are so rarely recognized and there is still so little awareness about trans issues and the violence trans folks face that it is safe to say many murders of trans folks went unreported.

Finding accurate information to identify murder victims as trans or killed because of their gender presentation is a consistent challenge. Just this week the brutal murder of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was reported as that of a “gay teen” with male pronouns used when referring to Lopez Mercado. There has been very little coverage of the fact that Lopez Mercado was a sex worker with a female presentation. Murder suspect Juan antonio Martinez Matos said he thought Lopez Mercado was female but then “realized that the teenager was actually male.”

I don’t know how Lopez Mercado identified, but Martinez Matos’ statement tells us that they didn’t conform to his strict understanding of gender: Martinez Matoz thought Lopez Mercado was female and then changed his opinion, the reason given for the murder. So Lopez Mercado’s name has been added to the list of those we remember.

Many of those we have mourned over the years originally had their murders reported as the killing of a gay male. For most we still don’t know how they identified. But Lopez Mercado’s murder reflects those of too many others killed when presenting a gender other than that assigned to them at birth. Some may not have identified as trans but all were killed because of hatred directed towards those who break the strict rules of the compulsory gender binary. They were killed because they did not conform to what someone else thought their gender should be.

The media’s consistent failure to accurately identify trans folks reflects the erasure of and refusal to recognize our identities, lived experiences, and even our very existence. Information that identifies a murder victim as the target of anti-trans violence is often presented in the same way Martinez Matos’ story has been reported: the murderer thought the victim was a woman and killed them when they realized they were actually male and panicked. This narrative erases trans identities, legitimizes perceived physical sex over gender presentation, and paints trans folks as desceptive and the murderer as tricked, suggesting possible justification for murder. Media narratives end up contributing to the culture of violence and hatred targeted towards trans folks by legitimizing this “trans panic” narrative that gives the responsibility for explaining the murder victim’s identity to the very person who killed them.

Based on the murders we know about traditional sexism plays a huge role in who is killed: most people on the list each year had a feminine gender presentation. Other intersections of oppression seem to increase the likelihood of being targeted by anti-trans violence as well. Most of the people on the list are black or Latin@. And many were sex workers, a job that is often the only option for trans folks facing employment discrimination, rejection by family and friends, and high drop out rates from school because of harassment.

As a trans person I know I am a potential target of violence. However, as a person with white privilege not engaging in potentially dangerous work to survive I know I am less at risk than many other trans folks. This certainly gives me pause on Trans Day of Remembrance. I am lucky enough to have access to a pretty big platform when I want to raise awareness about the trans-related issues I care and know most about. Most of the people killed never had the opportunity to share their stories in such a public way.

I share something with everyone who was killed, but there are also major differences between my life experiences and those of most of the people we are remembering. I raise this point because I often feel a degree of appropriation in Trans Day of Remembrance. Many people are entering this day remembering lost friends and loved ones, people with whom they share life experience. But even many trans folks like myself have a very different life story from those killed. While I feel a strong personal connection to this day I also know the stories are not my own. I can mourn but also recognize important power differentials that make other trans folks more likely targets of violence. We must avoid using the stories of those killed to advance consciousness raising projects and a political agenda that is about the needs of trans folks with more relative power and privilege. Instead, we need to be continually working to build a politics that centers the voices and needs of those who are most vulnerable, even within already marginalized populations.

This year there are Transgender Day of Remembrance events occurring in over 120 locations. A list of events can be found here, though there may be an event at a city near you that is not listed so I recommend searching for “Transgender Day of Remembrance” and the nearest city if you would like to participate in a vigil or memorial.